SEOUL – President Joe Biden is tending to both business and security interests Sunday as he wraps up a three-day visit to South Korea, showcasing Hyundai’s pledge to build a $5.5 billion electric vehicle and battery factory in Georgia and visiting U.S. and South Korean troops monitoring the rapidly evolving North Korean nuclear threat.
The major U.S. investment by a South Korean company, which was formally unveiled in Georgia on Friday, is a reflection of how the U.S. and South Korea are leveraging their longstanding military ties into a broader economic partnership.
The U.S. president has made greater economic cooperation with South Korea a priority, saying on Saturday that “it will bring our two countries even closer together, cooperating even more closely than we already do, and help strengthen our supply chains, secure them against shocks and give our economies a competitive edge.”
The pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has forced a deeper rethinking of national security and economic alliances. Coronavirus outbreaks led to shortages of computer chips, autos and other goods that the Biden administration says can ultimately be fixed by having more manufacturing domestically and with trusted allies.
Biden’s meeting Sunday with Hyundai’s Euisun Chung comes after the president made an earlier stop at a computer chip plant run by Samsung, the Korean electronics giant that plans to build a $17 billion production facility in Texas.
Hyundai’s Georgia factory is expected to employ 8,100 workers and produce up to 300,000 vehicles annually, with plans for construction to begin early next year and production to start in 2025 near the unincorporated town of Ellabell.
But the Hyundai plant shows that there are also tradeoffs as Biden pursues his economic agenda.
The president earlier in his term tried to link the production of electric vehicles to automakers with unionized workers. As part of a $1.85 trillion spending proposal last year that stalled in the Senate, Biden wanted extra tax credits to go to the buyers of EVs made by unionized factories. That would have provided a boost to the unionized auto plant owned by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV at a vital moment when union membership nationwide has been steadily decreasing.
During the Samsung visit, Biden called on Korean companies building plants in the U.S. to hire union workers. In addition to its coming Texas plant, Samsung has a deal in place with Stellantis to build an electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant in the U.S.
“I urge Samsung and Stellantis and any company investing in the United States to enter into partnerships with our most highly skilled and dedicated and engaged workers you can find anywhere in the world: American union members,” he said.
There so far has been no guarantee that the Hyundai Georgia plant’s workers will be unionized.
Katie Byrd, the press secretary for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, noted in an email that the state is “Right-to-Work,” which “means that workers may not be required to join a union or make payments to a union as a condition of employment.”
A Hyundai spokesperson did not respond to an email asking if the Georgia plant would be unionized. A senior Biden administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said there was no contradiction between Biden encouraging investors to embrace union workforces while his administration does “whatever it can” to encourage investment and bring jobs to the U.S.
Before meeting Hyundai’s CEO, Biden attended Mass at his hotel in Seoul along with some White House staff. Biden will also meet with service members and military families at Osan Air Base and address U.S. and Korean troops. Biden and Korean President Yoon Sook Yeol on Saturday announced t hey will consider expanded joint military exercises to deter the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.
The push toward deterrence by Biden and Yoon, who is less than two weeks into his presidency, marks a shift by the leaders from their predecessors. President Donald Trump had considered scrapping the exercises and expressed affection for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And the last South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, remained committed to dialogue with Kim to the end of his term despite being repeatedly rebuffed by the North.
Biden decided to skip a visit to the demilitarized zone on the North and South’s border, a regular stop for U.S. presidents when visiting Seoul. Instead, Biden, who had visited the DMZ as vice president, was more interested in visiting Osan to see an installation “where the rubber hits the road” for U.S. and South Korean troops maintaining security on the Korean Peninsula, said White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
Yoon campaigned on a promise to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea relationship. He reiterated at a dinner on Saturday in Biden’s honor that it was his goal to move the relationship “beyond security” issues with North Korea, which have long dominated the relationship.
“I will try and design a new future vision of our alliances with you, Mr. President,” Yoon said.
Biden heads to Tokyo later Sunday. On Monday, he will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and lay out his vision for negotiating a new trade agreement called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
A central theme for the trip, Biden’s first to Asia as president, is to tighten U.S. alliances in the Pacific to counter China’s influence in the region.
But within the Biden administration, there’s an ongoing debate about whether to lift some of the $360 billion in Trump-era tariffs on China. Earlier this week, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said some of the tariffs are doing more harm to U.S. business and consumers than they are to China.
Sullivan said the president’s national security and economic teams were still reviewing “how to move beyond the trade approach of the previous administration.”
On Tuesday, Japan will host Biden at a summit for the Quad, a four-country strategic alliance that also includes Australia and India. The U.S. president will then return to Washington.
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